Some States Move to Curtail Suspension and Expulsion of Students

This week, the California legislature passed a bill that, if signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would expand the limitations on one specific reason commonly used for punishment—”willful defiance.”

This week, the California legislature passed a bill that, if signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would expand the limitations on one specific reason commonly used for punishment—”willful defiance.” Shutterstock


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California and Texas have both made strides to keep young students—and particularly students of color—in the classroom.

Nationwide, students of color are disproportionately the targets of harsh disciplinary policies at school, and are more likely to be suspended or expelled as a result. Black students, and black boys in particular, are vastly overrepresented in expulsion and suspension data, no matter the type of school or the rate of poverty at their school.

Some states are now trying to make the classroom more equitable by barring teachers and administrators from using some arguably subjective reasons for punishment.

This week, the California legislature passed a bill that, if signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would expand the limitations on one specific reason commonly used for punishment—“willful defiance.” 

Willful defiance, which is defined as when a student deliberately ignores the authority of teachers, has historically been used the most against black students. Though black students comprised only 5.6% of enrollment in California schools in the 2017-18 school year, they accounted for 15.6% of all willful defiance suspensions. Willful defiance accounts for 20.8% of all suspensions of black boys in middle school in California, and 25.6% of black male students in high school. 

California has tried to address the issue at the legislative level three times in the past decade. One of these bills, passed in 2013, banned willful defiance suspensions for students in kindergarten through third grade. Former Gov. Jerry Brown twice vetoed bills that would have expanded the ban to all grades. 

“Teachers and principals are on the front lines of educating our children and are in the best position to make decisions about order and discipline in the classrooms,” Brown wrote regarding one of his vetoes

The current bill, which advocates are cautiously optimistic that Newsom will sign, would permanently eliminate willful defiance suspensions for students through eighth grade, and place a moratorium on the practice for high school students through 2025. It would also apply the current rules barring the suspension of students in kindergarten through third grade for willful defiance to charter schools, which are currently exempt.

The bill’s author, Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, when introducing the bill said that suspensions and expulsions discourage students from pursuing school further. “Suspensions are not a formula for student success. Kids lose valuable instruction time causing them to fall behind in their studies; those same students are also more likely to drop out,” Skinner said. 

“Ending willful defiance suspensions will keep kids in school where they belong and where teachers and counselors can help them thrive, she added.

Five California school districts have already removed willful defiance from the list of reasons for  suspensions, including Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pasadena, and Azusa. A recent study that observed suspensions before and after Los Angeles instituted their ban found that 30% of teachers admitted to continuing to refer students for suspension, but simply used a reason other than willful defiance. 

But overall, with growing awareness of the issues associated with willful defiance, California has seen a drop in the suspensions categorized under this reason, from 335,000 for all K-12 students during the 2011-12 school year, to 60,000 in the 2017-18 school year—and they aren’t the only state applying legislative pressure to schools in an effort to keep students in the classroom.

In 2017, Texas banned out-of-school suspensions for students in preschool through second grade unless they bring a weapon, drugs, or alcohol to school, or violently assault someone. That law has dramatically decreased the number of suspensions for young children, from more than 101,200 in the 2015-16 school year, to 70,200 during the 2017-18 school year. Most of those suspensions were served in school, as out-of-school suspensions for young students fell from 36,500 to 7,640.

But that number is still too high, some education policy experts say, and the legislation in California and Texas doesn’t necessarily address teachers’ racial biases that can lead to harsher treatment of minority students for engaging in the same behavior as their white peers.

The bills also don’t provide additional training for teachers to learn about cultural differences, how child abuse may contribute to aggressive behavior, or how frustration with school work resulting from undiagnosed learning disorders may come across as disrespectful. 

Jenny Muñiz, an education researcher at the think tank New America, said that even well-intentioned teachers might not be able to understand how their biases would impact their decisionmaking about which students to punish. A former teacher herself, Muñiz said it’s important schools stop defining misconduct with vague terms. 

“Willful defiance is a subjective term that has been used disproportionately as a motive to suspend or expel students of color,” Muñiz said. “Hopefully legislation like this will nudge districts and schools to better address the root causes of student misbehavior, and to create more opportunities for expanded teacher training and or chances to explore restorative justice approaches.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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